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How to Write Critical Essays A guide for students of literature

How to write critical essays
A guide for students of literature

David B.Pirie

London and New York

First published in 1985 by Methuen & Co. Ltd Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2002. © 1985 David B.Pirie All rights reserved. No part of thisbook may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data Pirie, David B. How to write critical essays: a guide for students ofliterature. 1. Criticism I. Title 801'.95 PN81 Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication Data Pirie, David. How to write critical essays. 1. Criticism I. Title. PN81.P54 1985 808'.0668 84–27259 ISBN 0-203-40756-3 Master e-book ISBN

ISBN 0-203-71580-2 (Adobe eReader Format) ISBN 0-415-04533-9 (Print Edition)

Contents

Introduction 1 Facing the question Decode the questionsystematically Key-term queries Helpful hint queries Terms of approach Some problems of value and meaning Titles may imply premises which you should question Short titles may require long and complex answers Titles may tell you how much you need to read 2 Researching an answer Read the whole of each set text Read again Reading aloud Read with your dictionary readily at hand Leave each bout of readingmemorizing a specific Make notes Secondary sources and some problems in literary theory Literary history and biography Published criticism Discuss your essay subject with friends or relatives 3 Planning an argument Narrowing the scope Weighing the proportions

9 13 13 15 16 18 21 24 25 27 31 31 31 32 32 33 33 36 45 48 51 53 55 56

6

How to write critical essays

Paragraphing Systems forsequence Thesis, antithesis, synthesis Proposition and proof Order of composition The text’s own order Beginnings and endings 4 Making a detailed case Clarification or proof Quotations Frequency Relevance and length Analysis and commentary Paraphrase and plagiarism Specifying without verbatim extracts 5 Style Remember the reader Clarity Use familiar words Use modern English Use short sentences andstraightforward syntax Use of the present tense Economy Be brief Do not promise: perform The ideas in your essay are assumed to be your own Avoid repetition Precision Generalizations tend to be false and boring Dangerous terms which nearly always need further definition Eliminate phrases which implicitly confess vagueness Find precisely apt terms of praise or blame Do not make exaggerated claims foryour opinions Some words nearly always lead to overstatement Overstatement and understatement is a matter of degree and context

58 62 62 65 67 68 69 74 74 76 76 78 82 90 92 95 95 96 96 97 98 101 104 104 104 106 107 109 110 112 115 117 118 119 120

Contents

7

Avoid sexist terminology 6 Presentation Rough draft into fair copy Preliminaries on the first page Leave space for comments Titlesof literary works Titles of scholarly and critical works Quotations Identify the source of each quotation Bibliography Tutor’s comments 7 Postscript on pleasure

123 126 126 127 127 128 129 129 132 134 137 139

Introduction

There are so many practical suggestions in this book that you are almost certain to find some of them useful if you want your essays to gain higher marks. But I amassuming that you want more than that. If you have no worthier aim than impressing your teachers, essay-writing will at best seem a bore. At worst it will induce panic. The process of researching, planning and writing a critical essay can, and should, be enjoyable. If, at present, the prospect of such an exercise seems either dismal or daunting, that is almost certainly because you have not yet...
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